Monday, October 10, 2011

Pesto Part Due

  I make pesto out of anything green, and when garlic scapes were all over the market tables I used a bunch to make a delightful sandwich spread.  Scapes are the curly green stalks that grow from garlic bulbs- they are cut off before they flower to allow for maximum development down below.  They have a fresh garlic flavor and pleasing crunch, and can be eaten raw or cooked like green beans. 

  A jar of pesto is great to keep in the back of the fridge or freeze into ice cubes, and making it in the food processor couldn’t be easier.  I chopped up the scapes and put them in the bowl with a clove of garlic, some pine nuts and grated pecorino, then drizzled a glug of olive oil over the top. 

 I pulsed a few times to get it started, then let it rip while I poured a slow stream of olive oil through the hole in the top, until I could see the puree start to thicken as it took in the oil.  I tasted it and added more nuts and cheese, until I was happy with the balance.

  Scapes are not around anymore, but you could try making pesto out of all kinds of things, like spinach, arugula, kale, green beans, or good old basil, of course.

  I bought some soft bread and sliced salami, and hard boiled some farm fresh eggs- I sautéed up a few of the scapes until they were wrinkled and crispy on the outside.      

   Lisa came over with some sweet strawberries and we headed to East River Park for a beautiful picnic by the water, a wonderful way to spend a sunny afternoon!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Montauk Weekend


  A few weeks ago, we borrowed my parents’ car and drove out to the end of Long Island’s South Fork, to Montauk, where we spent the last weekend of the summer with our friends Bob and Monica.  Half an hour past the last of the Hamptons and it might as well be a world away, or as the guy at the reception desk put it, "Everything is casual out here.”

  It was the perfect two-day trip.  We stayed at the beautiful Montauk Yacht Club and drank dirty martinis out on the stone patio facing the waves; we slurped up juicy oysters pulled from the very waters that crashed around us. 
  In the morning, the boys went fishing and Monica and I rode bikes into town, while the sea breeze whipped through our hair and the sun shone down on our bare shoulders.  In the afternoon we went out to the end of the earth, to Montauk Point to see New York’s first lighthouse, still guiding ships home today.  We sat there as a thick mist rolled in, and felt the deep boom of the foghorn reverberate in our teeth and bones.   
photo by Monica Hernandez
  On our way home we stopped at a proper roadside crab shack and indulged in a feast of the North Atlantic’s tastiest jewels, dressed in their best!


 The temperature dropped with the fog, and a steaming bowl of creamy clam chowder hit the ultimate spot- so rich and full of delicious fruits of the sea, the spoons stand straight up!

Fried clam strips on a buttered roll

Likely the most expensive thing I'll ever eat on a hot dog bun and worth every penny...
  The boys released most of the fish they caught, but PJ brought back a bluefish to make a cevice. 

  I chunked up the filets and squeezed about 8 limes over top, until the fish was completely submerged.  This went into the fridge overnight.  The next day, I drained the lime juice- the fish had turned from translucent to opaque and firm.

  I chopped up tomatoes, onion, green olives, a jalapeno pepper, and some cilantro.  I put these in a bowl with the fish and add olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.  It was delicious! 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Egg Yolk Pasta

  Lately it’s been all almond cakes, which leaves me with tons of leftover egg yolks.  Instead of making endless batches of ice-cream and custard, which would be so good and so bad, I searched for a recipe high in yolks but not in sugar.  I found just the thing in the French Laundry cookbook- a pasta dough mixed by hand! 

Pasta Dough
from The French Laundry Cookbook
1 ¾ cups          flour
6                      yolks
1                      egg
1 ½ t                olive oil
1 T                   milk

 The recipe is basic, just 4 ingredients.  I searched my shelves for something to spice it up, and I picked a glass jar of espelette pepper that we brought back from Biaritz, and a box of saffron from India.  A spoonful of red powder went into the flour and I sprinkled a few red strands into the milk and let it soak while I formed my well of flour.

  The trick is to leave enough space in the middle for the wet ingredients, and to build a solid wall that is not too high- the height should be just over your first knuckle, enough to hold in the yolks without incorporating too much flour at once.  If you are going to attempt this recipe, a plastic bowl scraper is a cheap investment you’ll be happy you made. 

  I poured the yolks, milk and oil into the center ring and I had to marvel at how beautiful it looked!  I couldn’t wait to get my hands into it…

   I started to break up the yolks with my fingers and mix the wet ingredients together.  Then, I used my fingers like a whisk in the middle of the well, making small circles and pulling flour in from the walls a little at a time- the mixing technique explained in Keller’s recipe.  This slow incorporation of the flour cuts down on lumpiness- as the walls eroded, I used the scraper to gently push them in from the outside. 

  Eventually, the liquid became a yellow paste, then a shaggy ball of dough which I kneaded for about ten minutes.  I let it rest and kneaded it again, until it pulled back when I pushed a finger through it.

  The next day, I used my pasta machine to roll out sheets of dough, then rolled them up and cut them into thin strips.

  I pulled the strands of pasta apart and laid them on a rack to dry.

  Fresh hand-made pasta needs less than five minutes in boiling salted water- I cooked up discs of zucchini and deep green haricots vert in butter and finished with raw chopped tomato.

  Springy and delicate, the strands were all flecked through with red espelette and the subtle sweet taste of saffron.  The egg yolks added a richness and depth of flavor to the simple pasta, as did the memory of how good it had felt to wiggle my fingers through those cold, creamy yolks.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hand Cut Pesto

  I picked a bunch of basil from my garden and had a craving for a simple pasta with garlicky pesto.  But since my counter is the size of a placemat, the bulky Cuisinart lives high above the kitchen cabinet (singular), and sometimes I just don’t have it in me to pull out the stepladder and lug it down.  So it occurred to me, of course they made pesto before they made food processors, so what would my hypothetical Italian grandma have done?    
  Pesto, like curry, is a generic term in its mother tongue- it translates to pounded or crushed, because that’s how they used to make all over Italy, using a mortar and pestle to mash different ingredients into a paste.  What we call pesto on this side of the pond- basil, pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil- is pesto genovese, born in the same town as Columbus, but different regions have their specialties.

 Alas, my mortar and pestle is tiny, so I searched for an alternative online and found several recipes for a chopped pesto- an intriguing idea, and one I was excited to try.
  I kept it as simple as possible.  Using the back of my knife, I crushed a sprinkling of course salt into a fat garlic clove, then dumped a handful of basil on my board and shaved a hard sheep’s milk cheese over top.  Half a handful of walnuts went onto the pile, and then I started chopping everything together, using two hands to rock the knife back and forth across the board.  I picked the sharpest knife we have, a shiny curved Japanese knife that came to us as a gift and cut through the leaves without bruising them.
  I added another round of basil, nuts and cheese, and kept chopping, every so often using my bowl scraper to push it all back together on the board.  Between the smell of the crushed garlic and basil, the rhythm of the knife rolling across the board, and the sound- snip! snip!- I fell into a wonderful trance, watching the pieces get smaller and smaller until I could no longer tell what had started out green and what had started out white.
  I chopped for over ten minutes, and when it was all as fine as I wanted it, I scraped the pesto up and put it into a small bowl and streamed in a few tablespoons of olive oil to finish.  I tasted it for salt and pepper and added some more cheese.  The resulting pesto was fragrant and lively, and dissolved into a million little confetti specks when I stirred it into my spaghetti. 
  Pesto made by hand like this is a special thing, a labor of love.  It is absolutely best eaten the same day you make it, so be sure to sit down and enjoy it with some crusty bread or a glass of something special. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Cooking With Aj

Lunch at home!

  Many of you reading this know that after many years of living in India, my parents have returned to their house on Long Hill Drive!  Having them close again is wonderful, and being back in the house is surreal.  Sleeping in my old room, sorting through boxes of stuff- notes and journals, pictures and letters, videos, drawings and writings- I am 13 years old again, and 17, and 19, and 22… 
  And as much as 411 has meant to me, I know it also lives in the memories of all my friends- from middle school, high school, college and the CIA.  It has a place in the hearts of my far-flung family, who’ve come from all points of the globe to stay and know the beauty that is New Jersey.  It has ever been a welcoming place, with plenty of booze and good food and glittering blue pool out back.  And the two most giving and generally awesome people who own it are always happy to have you over, I’m just lucky enough to call them my mom and dad.

  It’s nice to be home, and the bestest thing about this summer is that my mother’s mother, Aji, has come to stay for a few months.  Every morning she prepares some delectable vegetable dishes for lunch, and I have been watching her cook, trying to absorb all I can.  This is the Indian cuisine of my youth- simple, flavorful and healthy, with no adverse digestive consequences to face afterwards. 

  There is a feeling out there that Indian food is extremely hard to cook, when actually it should be quite uncomplicated once you get the method.  My Aji doesn’t use a big fancy knife and she cooks everything in small pots and pans, but I’ve never tasted anything near as delicious in any restaurant. 

  In French cooking, we start with a mirepoix- in Indian cooking we start by frying spices in hot oil, then adding chilies, onions, garlic and ginger.  The goal is the same, we are building a flavor base.  Aj rubs the cumin seeds in her hand before adding them to the pot to release the oils.  She then adds onions and turmeric and fries them for a few minutes.

  One of my favorite dishes has always been okra, but the few times I’ve tried to cook it I end up with an unappetizing gooey mess.  Aji suggests adding some acid to the dish to cut the goo, in the form of cut tomatoes, lime juice, sour mango powder, or even some vinegar. 

  She adds coriander and cumin powder, salt and a pinch of sugar, then covers and cooks on low for about 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender.  No goo!  She garnishes with fresh chopped cilantro.

  Meanwhile, my mother works on a delicious cucumber “salad” ( I can’t even begin to spell the word in Hindi)

  She grates ginger and adds to the chopped cucumber, chilies, and salt.  She makes a “sauce” with tamarind, fresh coconut and some jaggery, and tosses in a bit of the fried cumin seed and oil.

  The result is a bright salad- tangy, cool, sweet and spicy all together!
  You might be wondering: where are the recipes??  Well, there are no recipes for this type of vegetarian home cooking- I could tell you to add a teaspoon of cumin seeds or a cup of chopped tomatoes, but you could just as easily leave the tomato out or double the cumin- the beauty is the nuance of the cook, so the same dish can appear in a billion different incarnations in homes all across the world.

  The key is to understand the method: hot oil, spice seeds and chilies, vegetables, ground spices and powders.  After that, it is just a matter of getting to know your spices and flavors: garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, mustard, turmeric, black gram, chili powder… the list goes on and on!  Dual Specialty Store is an excellent Indian grocery near me on 1st Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets, where I can find all the necessary spices.  We Indians have spread ourselves all over this country, and by now I’m sure most of you out there would have no problem locating your local source for split lentils and garam masala. 

   I am still far from confident with my use of the spices, but I’ve gotten better with practice.  Like anything else, it takes testing and tasting, and I’m learning as I go.  I have a lot to live up to, but I can’t be too hard on myself if my cooking doesn’t taste as good as my Aji’s- mine is just starting out and hers is flavored with a lifetime of understanding.